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Tabata vs HIIT: Which Offers More Results?

Updated: May 5, 2021

Exercise is important for every individual. The physical and mental benefits of being active for a minimum of 30 minutes a day are well researched and documented. A workout routine helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, aids in weight loss, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and supplies endorphins, which elevate mood.

Thirty minutes a day is the general physician’s recommendation and, for some, that may be all the time they have in a day to dedicate to their fitness. Shorter workout sessions mean you must increase the intensity to increase the calories burned! The rising popularity of fast, intense, calorie-scorching training like high intensity interval training (HIIT) and Tabata training keeps these short sessions engaging and fun with the added benefit of increasing program adherence and, if done properly, results!

Tabata Training and HIIT – What’s the Deal?

Both of these training styles burn a high number of calories and both are technically a form of high intensity interval training. However, they differ slightly in how they are performed and we will explore each next.

Interval training at maximal or near maximal effort and VO2max (the number that correlates to oxygen uptake and aerobic capacity in the body) has been shown to increase epinephrine and norepinephrine. Both of these hormones lead to enhanced lipolysis during activity, which translates to fat breakdown. The duration post-workout that the increased calorie burn and fat lipolysis occur is highly debated. Some research shows the effects of a high intensity workout extend to just the hour post-workout, while others attribute the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) to increasing the effects for 24-36 hours post=workout.

Keep in mind how we gauge the intensity of intervals. VO2max can actually be measured as can the heart rate as a percentage of someone’s maximum heart rate. The rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is a subjective scale based on the immediate feedback of the exerciser and how they feel with 1 being minimal effort and 10 being maximal effort. Either way, the results are clear: the higher the intensity, the better the results!

Tabata Training

Dr. Izumi Tabata is credited with developing Tabata training in 1996. Along with his team at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, he tested and perfected the timing and required intensity needed to be highly effective in just 4 minutes of training.

The timing of Tabata consists of eight rounds of 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest. The same movement is repeated for all eight consecutive rounds. Research conducted by Tabata and his team determined these shorter intervals with shorter rest created a large VO2max increase and a 28% increase in anaerobic capacity. Here’s the catch: With Tabata training, the intervals need to be performed at about 170% of VO2max to be more effective than moderate intensity interval training. Thus, these circuits are referred to as exhaustive intermittent training!

Weights were not tested with the Tabata training, although many trainers use a large variety of cardio and strength training movements. Dr. Tabata also concluded that the use of treadmills is not the most effective for Tabata training as the speed changes with the belt often take too long and jumping on and off the belt does not allow time for proper form during such a short interval.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

There is much debate over when interval training was originally introduced. One thing generally agreed upon is that it came about in the early 1900s with athletes who excelled in running.

With runners, the high intensity interval training involved maximal sprints for 100-200 yards followed by rest of either a specific distance or until a desired level of recovery was achieved. Rounds of activity were completed between 10 and 50 times in a row. The increase in VO2max was noted with interval training and the original athletes who used it for race training.

As the popularity of these short intervals has grown, HIIT intervals are being completed as cardio and as strength training exercise with the goal of elevating the heart rate to 80-100% of VO2max and recovering after each round. Recovery can be a full heart rate recovery (30-45% of max) or as low as 70-85% of the max heart rate prior to beginning the next interval.

The work to rest ratio can vary with HIIT training as well. A 1:1, 1:2, up to 1:10 is used depending on the amount of recovery desired.

Many popular gyms offer heart rate based training classes founded on the principle of HIIT intervals. They utilize heart rate monitoring systems to ensure the participants are exerting the correct amount of strain while receiving the correct amount of recovery. However, the research is not clear as to the effectiveness of HIIT training for cardiovascular benefits over moderate intensity or steady state cardio.

So, What Really Is the Difference?

The proof is in the research! Check out both research articles. The major difference between Tabata and HIIT is the length and intensity of the intervals. True Tabata training requires a crazy amount of effort to reach maximal exhaustion in a short 4 minutes. HIIT training is more flexible.

Many people make simple mistakes when using tabata training. Again, while weights were not originally tested, the addition of resistance to certain exercises with Tabata like a kettlebell swing or a squat will increase the intensity by challenging the muscle more. Cardio training with tabata is generally not done on a treadmill, but with the use of demanding cardiovascular movements like mountain climbers and jump ropes.

If it is outside of the 20/10 work to rest ratio and below the required intensity level for tabata, it can be referred to as HIIT. The flexibility of the interval length and number of rounds makes this type of training easier to incorporate into a workout or as an effective finisher to a workout 2-3 times a week. Proper recovery is always needed after high intensity workouts, so more than 2-3 sessions per week is overkill.

Another benefit to HIIT training is the ability to do both cardio and strength training intervals effectively. A client with a goal of gaining muscle can still use HIIT, increase their heart rate enough to promote fat burning, but without the risk of compromising the muscle tissue they already have.

The Bottom Line

Both of these methods are fun, short, intense, and useful. The hormonal and cardio impact of both methods is thought to increase calorie burn and promote fat loss. The key to weight loss, in the end, is a deficit of calories. The key to muscle growth is challenging to failure. Both can be achieved with high intensity interval training!

As a trainer, the more effective you can be at getting your clients to blast calories in a shorter amount of time, the more engaged and compliant they will be. Give them both a try! Teach your clients about the benefits of both and see which one meets their needs and abilities. Then, its time to light it on fire with some high intensity efforts.

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